Manto, a movie based on the life of the famous Urdu writer, journalist, and screenwriter Saadat Hasan Manto, released in Indian theatres on 21st September, 2018, and left the critics mesmerized. Before releasing in Indian cinemas the film was screened at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival as well. It has been directed by Nandita Das, and stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, and Tahir Raj Bhasin in lead roles.
Manto was an Indo-Pak writer and produced 22 short stories in his short-lived lifetime. ‘Kali Shalwar’, ‘Bu’, ‘Dhuan’, and ‘Thanda Ghost’ are among many of his popular stories. Most of his stories were about sex, lust, drug addiction, prostitutes, and political corruption, as a result of which, he was charged with obscenity six times in India as well as in Pakistan. According to Manto, the government didn’t approve of his work because it didn’t want to talk about the fundamental religious and political issues of the country, and said ”If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.” In the book ‘The Pity of Partition’, Ayesha Jalal, manto’s grand-niece, historian by profession, wrote “Whether he was writing about prostitutes, pimps or criminals, Manto wanted to impress upon his readers that these disreputable people were also human, much more than those who cloaked their failings in a thick veil of hypocrisy.”
Given the time period of these events, one may presume that such issues are old and may not be prevalent today. However, unfortunately, this is not true. Even in today’s day and age, about 7 decades after Manto’s era, freedom of speech is still a major subject of debate in India.
The Constitution of India provides for freedom to speech and expression in it Article 19 (1)(a) according to which, every individual has a right to express her or his opinions through word of mouth, written word, printing, pictures, or any other medium without any restriction and, includes the right of an individual to propagate views of other people as well. But, many of the politicians and political organizations seem to be largely unaware this provision.
In the recent past we have had many incidents which sparked debates about the right to freedom of speech and expression. Censorship and bans on several movies are prominent examples. One of the recent and most debated cases would be the ruckus created around the release of the film Padmavat, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The film had been alleged to be portraying objectionable scenes between Rani Padmini and Alauddin Khilji despite of the makers’ and actors’ multiple clarifications that that wasn’t the case. The director was assaulted by a Rajput group by the name of Shri Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena, and the sets were vandalized. The incident should have been highly condemned by the government; however, on the contrary, the Social Justice Minister of Rajasthan commented that the film would be vetted by the Karni Sena. Many other films such as Udta Punjab, Lipstick Under My Burkha, and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil are known for the controversies and censorship.
Even stand-up comedy in India has not been spared. In the year 2015, the famous (or infamous) AIB Roast was ‘roasted’ by many of the politicians and political organizations, to the point that a police complaint was filed by one such Hindu organization and accused the show of obscenity and for attacking the Indian culture (sounds familiar?). Despite of being liked by a majority of citizens of the country, mostly the youth, the videos had to be taken down from the internet while the creators faced the wrath. Tanmay Bhatt, a known face of the AIB team, has also been a subject of debate. In 2016, a snapchat video by the comedian wherein he was seen mimicking Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar, led to an FIR against him with the Mumbai Police. Given the involvement of two legendary personalities of the country, the video was bound to create some stir among the public and political organizations. However, just because a comedian offended some people, does it mean that he broke the law?
Apart from the entertainment industry, breech of freedom of speech has also been witnessed with several attacks on journalists. From the year 2016 to 2017, approximately 54 journalists had come under attack. Assassination of a celebrated journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017 had left everyone nonplussed and enraged.
Although, these cases do make us question the prevalence of the freedom of speech and expression in India, however, all is not bad. In a case where 3 children were expelled from school because they refused to sing along the national anthem while standing respectfully for the same, under the Prevention of Insults to National Honors Act, 1971, the Supreme Court held that the children did not commit any offence. Another triumph was attained in 2015 when a division bench headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul repealed the appeal to ban the novel Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman) by Perumal Murugan.
For freedom of speech and expression to prevail in our country, it is important to create an ethos of respect for others’ opinions regardless of whether we agree with them or not. In her book ‘The Friends of Voltaire’ Evelyn Beatrice Hall, a 20th century English writer, penned the quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In a country where people often tend to take offence, it is essential to practice tolerance for opinions which are in contrast to ours. The issue has not been completely resolved since the time Manto dared to portray the realities of the society to those who couldn’t bear to accept it. Hence, there is an urgent need to address it.